Back in DC after Sandia meeting

I barely made my connection in Denver, and arrived after midnight, but I’m back for the weekend, before heading out again Monday to a meeting in Helsinki.

As usual, the meeting at Sandia National Laboratory was extremely interesting and the scientific discussions fruitful. The Lab’s efforts in cognitive sciences are really beginning to show pay-off.

In the meantime, a day to catch up on work at the Institute…..

The musical brain

Several years ago, Bonnie Simon, hosted me at the Cosmos Club to ask me about the neuroscience of human musical experiences. At the time, I pointed her in the roughly correct directions towards the fMRI literature and wondered whether my friend and colleague, Bill Reeder, Dean of our College of Visual and Performing Arts, might have something valuable to add–after all he is a real opera performer; I just enjoy classical music.

Here’s a more recent blogpost from Jonah Lehrer at Wired. Not surprisingly the neurotransmitter, dopamine, plays a starring role (although recent work from Huda Akil’s lab calls into question the exact role of dopamine in reward).

I’m fairly certain that, one day, when we understand a lot more about the brain, it will be the mathematical aspects of music as reflected in the dynamics of tone and rhythms that will turn out to be the key to why humans, of all ilks, love it so much.

So perhaps the more underlying question is why (and whether) human beings have a deep underlying need for mathematics–from my viewpoint in the enjoyment of aspects of the natural experience which are especially mathematically symmetric (or not).

The Larval Stage of Institutional Development

Krasnow’s larval stage was as a stand-alone institute constituted as a non-profit. It operated out of rental class-B commercial space in downtown Fairfax and had several employees (two of whom are still with us!). The Institute for Advanced Study had grand plans though–even at that time (nearly two decades ago), and moves were afoot for a meeting to be co-sponsored with the Santa Fe Institute which would focus our scientific program towards the intersection of neurobiology, cognitive psychology and computer sciences. There were also plans and money for a dedicated facility (albeit more like a think tank than a place with laboratories), and a seminar series was commenced that also, continues to this day. The initial aspirational models for the Institute were places like the Santa Fe Institute and to a lesser extent Cold Spring Harbor Lab, and Woods Hole. The notion is that we would always be stand-alone and that in a decade or so, there would be bricks and mortar, a powerful governance board that would provide the resources for an endowment and a cadre of scientists who would be principally identified as investigators rather than as academic faculty members.

The larval stage ended in 2002 with the merger with George Mason and the metamorphosis into the mature Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study as a full academic unit of the University. And yet, there are elements of the larval DNA that still remain: one of which is a commitment to the elite post-graduate educational programs offered by our early aspirational peers. While we have buttered our bread over the years since the merger with the development of doctoral programs in neuroscience and computational social sciences, this early notion of running summer short courses remains. The location of course is dramatic and special (the Institute is only 12 miles from the US Capitol Building). We now have superb conference and hotel facilities. And there is a critical mass of both faculty and related content/research that might be offered.

So we’re reactivating that latent part of Krasnow’s genome, left over from our larval era. In the meantime, we enjoy the massive advantages that come from being a part of a large, healthy public research university.

Neuroscience and education

Over at the Wall St. Journal, a review of Daniel T. Willingham’s new book, Why Don’t Student’s Like School.

Money quote:

So why don’t students like school? According to Mr. Willingham, one major reason is that what school requires students to do — think abstractly — is in fact not something our brains are designed to be good at or to enjoy. When we confront a task that requires us to exert mental effort, it is critical that the task be just difficult enough to hold our interest but not so difficult that we give up in frustration. When this balance is struck, it is actually pleasurable to focus the mind for long periods of time. For an example, just watch a person beavering away at a crossword or playing chess in a noisy public park. But schoolwork and classroom time rarely keep students’ minds in this state of “flow” for long. The result is boredom and displeasure. The challenge, for the teacher, is to design lessons and exercises that will maximize interest and attention and thus make students like school at least a bit more.